Black Families: “Broken” and “Weak”

“I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”
 ~ Steven Steinberg, quoting a black friend

Many of my unconscious assumptions have been challenged over the years. One example of this are the mental habits I’ve had when hearing the frame of “broken families”. Part of me has always known that there are many kinds of family structures and social networks, but that part of my mind was unintentionally divided from the part of my mind that normally deals with ideas such as “broken families”.

I hadn’t previously been forced to become aware of this bias I had, partly because of a lack of knowledge. Books I’ve read in recent years have both given me new information and new contexts in which to think. In the past, I took the idea of “broken families” at face value without fully interrogating the assumptions behind it. I was just being a typical American in thinking this way.

As my views have shifted, I’ve become more self-questioning. I don’t just want to understand others. This is personal to me. This is about the society I’m a part of. My family ties to America go back to that first Virginia colony and that particular family line began with a slave owner. That puts my identity as an American in perspective. It also puts my views on the American family in perspective.

I am who I am because of who my ancestors were. There is a continuous link between their lives and my own. Unlike the descendants of the slaves owned by that ancestor of mine, my genealogy on that family line is well established. My ancestor, all those centuries ago, brought his own family to the New World and along with them he tore away Africans from their families. In that, the seed of American culture was planted.

My parents, white of course, both came from families where there was much fighting and in my mother’s family also abuse. My paternal grandparents divorced when my father was in high school. Neither of my parents’ families were ideal nuclear families and my father’s family ended up as a “broken family”. Interestingly, my maternal grandmother had an absentee father (her maiden name was Peebles, the same as that early Virginia plantation owner). Her father disappeared one day, never to be heard from again.

But I’m not sure how my parents’ would label their families. They both are conservatives with strong family values and both would criticize blacks for their supposed weak and broken families. They have remained married, my dad having avoided his own family’s curse of single parenthood. They take this as proof that no one can blame previous generations for their own ‘failures’.

However, the difference is that my parents grew up white in relatively well off communities at a time when this country offered immense opportunities, especially for white people. The family problems they grew up with were less problematic because they weren’t compounded by endless social problems and racism. That makes a big difference. As Khalil Gibran Muhammad explained in The Condemnation of Blackness (pp. 6-7):

“One of the strongest claims this book makes is that statistical comparisons between the Foreign-born and the Negro were foundational to the emergence of distinctive modern discourses on race and crime. For all the ways in which poor Irish immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century were labeled members of the dangerous classes, criminalized by Anglo -Saxon police, and over-incarcerated in the nation’s failing prisons, Progressive era social scientists used statistics and sociology to create a pathway for their redemption and rehabilitation. 27 A generation before the Chicago School of Sociology systematically destroyed the immigrant house of pathology built by social Darwinists and eugenicists, Progressive era social scientists were innovating environmental theories of crime and delinquency while using crime statistics to demonstrate the assimilability of the Irish, the Italian, and the Jew by explicit contrast to the Negro. 28 White progressives often discounted crime statistics or disregarded them altogether in favor of humanizing European immigrants, as in much of Jane Addams’s writings. 29 In one of the first academic textbooks on crime, Charles R. Henderson, a pioneering University of Chicago social scientist, declared that “the evil [of immigrant crime] is not so great as statistics carelessly interpreted might prove.” He explained that age and sex ratios— too many young males— skewed the data. But where the “Negro factor” is concerned, Henderson continued, “racial inheritance, physical and mental inferiority , barbarian and slave ancestry and culture ,” were among the “most serious factors in crime statistics.””

As this shows, there are deeper issue of cultural assumptions. It isn’t just about failure of some ideal family standard, but how that ideal came about and is used as a basis of judgment. We should think much more carefully, with greater self-awareness and less self-righteousness. Conservatives are partly right in pointing out the importance of family. Where conservatives fail is in their lack of understanding about what family, in all its forms, signifies. It is never just about families.

* * * *

Reading Africa into American Literature: Epics, Fables, and Gothic Tales
by Keith Cartwright
p. 70

Adding racist insult to the nation’s pathological history of racist injury, the Moynihan Report (1965) labeled the black family “a pathological `matriarchy”‘ that had fallen into a “deterioration” explainable by “the rampant sexual debauchery among the black population, by the instability and violence of black men, and by the pathological dominance of black women” (Hirsch 142-43). Issued at a time when heroes like Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King Jr. (along with women like Selma’s Marie Foster and Amelia Boynton), were taking to Southern streets and spilling their blood there, the Moynihan Report’s maligning of the black family avoided America’s core pathologies. As might be expected, its critical focus upon an alleged “black matriarchy” energized black nationalist efforts to restore the father to his “proper” familial location.

* * * *

Poor Reason: Culture Still Doesn’t Explain Poverty
by Stephen Steinberg
Kindle Locations 59-74

Far from having a chilling effect on researching and thinking about culture in relationship to poverty, the debate over the Moynihan report spawned a canon of critical scholarship. For the first time, scholars came to terms with the economic underpinnings of the nuclear family, which tends to unravel whenever male breadwinners are unemployed for long periods of time, as was true of white families during the Depression.

No longer was the nuclear family, with its patriarchal foundations, the unquestioned societal norm. The blatantly tendentious language that pervaded the Moynihan report — “broken homes” and “illegitimate births ” — was purged from the professional lexicon. More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.”

Yet even Moynihan’s harshest critics did not deny the manifest troubles in black families. Nor did they deny that the culture of poor people is often markedly at variance with the cultural norms and practices in more privileged sectors of society. How could it be otherwise? The key point of contention was whether, under conditions of prolonged poverty, those cultural adaptations “assume a life of their own” and are passed down from parents to children through normal processes of cultural transmission. In other words, the imbroglio over the Moynihan report was never about whether culture matters, but about whether culture is or ever could be an independent and self-sustaining factor in the production and reproduction of poverty.

* * * *

When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America
by Ira Katznelson
Kindle Locations 409-439

Lyndon B. Johnson gave a famous speech at Howard University where he discussed the Negro problem. It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who helped write that speech and provided the information that was cited. In that speech, Johnson asked about the widening gulf between whites and blacks. He put this in context of the also widening gulf between minority of middle class blacks and the majority in the black working class who were becoming a permanent underclass (or rather had never stopped being a permanent underclass, despite the mid-century economic growth of most Americans).

Why were so many blacks unable to escape the permanent underclass that had been sustained by systemic and institutional racism for centuries? Of course, Johnson didn’t phrase the question that way, because then the question would have answered itself. Instead, he assumed the old racial order had ended and therefore something else must be sustaining the continued inequality. One of the explainations he gave is as follows:

With the identification of this growing gap between black and white Americans, the president advanced an uncommonly analytical explanation for a political address. “We are not completely sure,” he confessed, “why this is.” But among the “complex and subtle” causes, he singled out two for special mention. “First, Negroes are trapped —as many whites are trapped— in inherited, gateless poverty.” Such poverty is deeper and more distinctive. “Negro poverty is not white poverty.” The differences, he hastened to explain, “are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice , and present prejudice.” Unlike blacks, the white poor, many of whom had escaped its shackles, “did not have the heritage of centuries to overcome , and they did not have a cultural tradition which had been twisted and battered by endless years of hatred and hopelessness, nor were they excluded—these others —because of race or color— a feeling whose dark intensity is matched by no other prejudice in our society.”

The second cause, embedded in the first, he identified as “the breakdown of the Negro family structure,” which he attributed to “centuries of oppression and persecution of the Negro man.” Here, of course, the president echoed the findings and arguments published just two months earlier in Moynihan’s controversial Department of Labor report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. A self-perpetuat ing “tangle of pathology ,” marked by “the deterioration of the Negro family” and produced by “three centuries of injustice,” it had argued, blocked black mobility. For this reason, Moynihan advocated that “a national effort towards the problems of Negro Americans must be directed towards the question of family structure.” 26

Neither of these arguments can be dismissed . The barriers to black advancement indeed were more pervasive and deep as a result of the country’s long history of racial oppression. No doubt, too, families with one adult tended to be more poor than those with two. Still, these explanations were insufficient. Other possibilities were ignored. A radical decline in agricultural employment in the South and the start of deindustrialization in the North combined to limit opportunities at the bottom of the economic structure. Lags in skill training, more limited access to higher education, and persistent private discrimination by employers, banks, landlords, and other suppliers of economic opportunity also blocked black mobility. 27 Even the most successful fraction of black America—professionals, small business people, white-collar workers in public life, and industrialized workers in union jobs— faced new stresses. The end of Jim Crow, migration northward, and the start of desegregation in education wore away their insulated niches, and left them with fewer assets and greater insecurities than their white counterparts. 28

Yet even more important , and entirely absent from the president’s account, was the set of causes that will be highlighted in more detail in the chapters below: how the wide array of significant and far -reaching public policies that were shaped and administered during the New Deal and Fair Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s were crafted and administered in a deeply discriminatory manner. This was no accident. Still an era of legal segregation in seventeen American states and Washington, D.C., the southern wing of the Democratic Party was in a position to dictate the contours of Social Security, key labor legislation , the GI Bill, and other landmark laws that helped create a modern white middle class in a manner that also protected what these legislators routinely called “the southern way of life.”

4 thoughts on “Black Families: “Broken” and “Weak”

  1. I think that blaming the victim has become a convenient form of intellectual cowardice among the political right or they would have to examine the true nature of their accusations.

    • As I see it, the issue is that few are taking families seriously. Families are the canary in the coal mine. The challenges and problems facing families aren’t caused by the families themselves. It is much larger and deeper, touching upon the entire social fabric. That is what some fear to look at too closely.

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